UNITED STATES NEWS

‘It was like a heartbeat’: Residents at a loss after newspaper shutters in declining coal county

Jul 25, 2023, 9:19 PM

WELCH, W.Va. (AP) — Months after Missy Nester ended The Welch News’ 100-year run, she can barely stand to walk through the office doors of the newspaper her mother taught her to read with growing up in West Virginia’s southern coalfields. It’s still too painful.

The Welch News owner and publisher’s desk is covered with unpaid bills and her own paychecks — a year’s worth — she never cashed. Phones that used to ring through the day have gone silent. Tables covered with typewriters, awards and a century’s worth of other long-abandoned artifacts are reminders that her beloved paper has become an artifact, too.

Wiping away tears, Nester said she wishes people understood why she fought so hard to protect the last remaining news outlet in her community, and why it feels like the people left behind by the journalism industry are often those who need it most.

“Our people here have nothing,” said Nester, 57. “Like, can any of y’all hear us out here screaming?”

In March, the McDowell County weekly became another one of the thousands of U.S. newspapers that have shuttered since 2005, a crisis Nester called “terrifying for democracy” and one that disproportionately impacts rural Americans like her.

Residents suddenly have no way of knowing what’s going on at public meetings, which are not televised, nor are minutes or recordings posted online. Even basic tasks, like finding out about church happenings, have become challenging. The paper printed pages of religious events and directories every week and that hasn’t been replaced.

Local crises, like the desperately needed upgrade of water and sewer systems, are going unreported. And there is no one to keep disinformation in check, like when the newspaper published a series of stories that dispelled the rumors of election tampering at local precincts during last year’s May primaries.

“It was like a heartbeat, like a thread that ran through the community,” said World War II veteran Howard Wade, a retired professor specializing in Black history.

Sitting on a rocking chair in pajama pants in his ranch house at the base of lush, green hills, Wade said he hasn’t read any news since the paper stopped printing. He’s worried about the county history the newspaper chronicled throughout his life. At 97, he was born three years after it opened its doors in 1923.

The decline of American newspapers is well-documented. The people most impacted tend to be older, low-income and less likely to have graduated high school or college than people living in well-covered communities.

For McDowell residents, the news was still a shock. Many said they didn’t realize how much they depended on the paper until it was gone.

Sarah Hall, the first Black prosecutor elected in McDowell County in the 1980s, said it’s tragic when any community loses its newspaper. But for communities like hers, it’s detrimental.

The 535-square-mile (1,385-square-kilometer) county is dominated by rugged mountain terrain, where residents live miles apart in hollers connected by winding roads and no interstate access, leaving people isolated. Cell and internet service is inconsistent — or nonexistent — and there are no locally-based radio or television stations.

“We’re in a unique situation because our community is unique,” she said. “We have no other substantial way of communicating.”

It bothers Hall not to know about decisions county commissioners are making with taxpayer money and she misses the legal notices the paper published informing residents about developments like utility rate increases. With the school year set to start, she’s worried families won’t know about a ministry program in early August providing free school supplies.

For Nester and her staff of three, the grief of closing the paper has felt impossible to confront after years of sacrifices, both financial and personal. Nester took out a loan and scraped together all the money she could in 2018 to save it, the crumbling building with a caving roof, cracked walls and a 1966 Goss printing press in the basement.

The Welch News team felt buoyed as protectors of democracy in a place where people sometimes feel forgotten or overlooked by the rest of the country.

Sprawling across the Cumberland Mountains of Appalachia, McDowell County was once seen as a symbol of American progress: the self-proclaimed “Heart of the Nation’s Coal Bin” was the world’s largest coal producer and attracted thousands of European immigrants and Black families fleeing the Jim Crow South looking for work and a better life.

In 1950, nearly 100,000 people lived in McDowell, and a fourth of that population was Black, unconventional in the predominately white state. The county earned the moniker the “Free State of McDowell” because of the lack of segregation and unprecedented Black representation in government.

Today, 80% of the 17,850 remaining residents are white, still making it one of West Virginia’s most diverse counties. It’s also the poorest, with some of the lowest graduation and life expectancy rates in the nation. A third of all McDowell County residents live in poverty. The per capita income is $15,474.

Over the years, the county lost big box stores, schools, thousands of jobs and people. But it still had its newspaper — one that tracked government spending, published elections, spelling bee and basketball game results and spreads with color photos and biographies of every member of the graduating class.

Now, because many older residents don’t use the internet, they are missing crucial information the newspaper would have reported on. A pandemic-era meal service for seniors was cut, and there was no easy way to inform residents. People who relied on the obituaries have struggled keeping up with loved ones’ deaths.

“Now when people die, a lot of people don’t even realize they’re dead,” said Deputy Magistrate Court Clerk Virginia Dickerson, 79, while on a break outside her office, watching coal trucks lumber by.

Dickerson, who delivered the paper when she was growing up, said losing the paper was like “losing a family member.”

“Anything that happen usually in the community and anywhere in McDowell County, it would be in that paper. Without no paper, you can’t find out nothing,” she said.

Paulina Breeden, who works behind the counter at the sole gas station in the neighboring community of Maybeury, said people still come in and ask about the paper. She’s the one who has to inform them it’s closed. They’re often incredulous.

“They say, ‘Oh, really? Are you serious?’ I mean, they were shocked,” she said.

Breeden said she trusted the information she read in The Welch News: “You hear a lot, and I know maybe in there it’s not the actual truth,” she said of rumors around town. “Let’s just read the newspaper.”

The political and socioeconomic implications of the newspaper’s closure are widespread, but not always immediately visible. Although the county is now without a local news source, residents are no strangers to news coverage — often by national outlets that focus on the poverty rate, opioid use, infrastructure woes and the declining coal industry.

The paper was a vital platform for residents to tell their story from their perspective — a lifeline for a community that’s often been misrepresented and misunderstood.

Shawn Jenkins, a pharmacy owner who works down the street from The Welch News, said he feels national coverage of McDowell County — and West Virginia in general — is overly “political, unfair and often negative.” But he never felt that way about the local newspaper.

“I never saw anything that really raised my hackles. I thought they were pretty much center line, which is the exception these days,” he said, adding that he advertised in the paper. “I wanted them to survive.”

Before Nester took over in 2018, the paper ran summaries of local government meetings written up by a county employee. That changed when 32-year-old Derek Tyson, the paper’s single reporter and editor, began covering meetings. The attention seemed to bother some local officials, who would call late at night to grumble about stories. The city of Welch declined to comment on the newspaper’s closure.

Without the paper and its journalist asking questions, residents are going to find it harder to stay informed about things that matter locally, Nester said.

“I think that’s unfair to the people that live in the community,” she said.

One of the major stories the paper was following for years is the work of the McDowell Public Service District, which focuses on upgrading systems in coal communities with aging infrastructure. For decades, some people in the county relied on mountain streams polluted with mine runoff because of disintegrating — or completely absent — systems. Others, like those in the majority-Black community of Keystone, lived under a boil water advisory for 10 years — a nearly unheard-of length of time — until the district replaced the water lines under two years ago.

Now, long-awaited federal support is expected to go out to communities with the passage of the historic bipartisan infrastructure act. But the paper won’t be there to cover it.

The void created by the disappearance of The Welch News is being filled by cable news and social media, something that deeply concerns Tyson. Much of what he sees circulating locally on Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets is unverified.

The newspaper used to act as a counter to that misinformation. During last year’s May primary, rumors ran rampant on Facebook about election tampering after some residents arrived at long-time precincts on voting day to find their names missing from the poll books.

Tyson wrote multiple stories digging into the claims and clarifying that the confusion was caused by an issue with state Secretary of State’s voter database. Although people were forced to vote in different locations or to cast provisional ballots, all votes were counted.

During one meeting among local officials discussing the issue, a county commissioner said he believed the lack of daily news sources in the county contributed to the misinformation’s spread. He credited The Welch News for its work.

When Nester was raising her three children as a single mother in the 1990s and 2000s, the county’s older residents would stop by her house on surprise visits with meals and cash they’d tape to her front door. Many of the people who read the newspaper are aging, she said.

During her time at the newspaper, delivery drivers would drop off bread and milk with The Welch News at some houses, along with other essentials.

“I saw keeping the paper going as a way to repay them — or to try to — for everything they did to take care of me,” she said.

——

The Associated Press receives support from several private foundations to enhance its explanatory coverage of elections and democracy. See more about AP’s democracy initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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‘It was like a heartbeat’: Residents at a loss after newspaper shutters in declining coal county